Guest Post: On the Dangers of Reading Disparate Impact into Manifest Arbitrariness – a Response to Dhruva Gandhi

[This is a guest post by Shreyas A.R.]


Previously on this blog, Dhruva Gandhi had suggested that the Court in Navtej Johar attempted to read disparate impact analysis into the manifest arbitrariness test. In this piece, I will respond to Dhruva’s arguments by arguing why such a formulation is unnecessary, especially considering that the impacts analysis has been read into the reasonable classification test in Navtej itself, making the arbitrariness doctrine quite irrelevant for this purpose.

A brief recap is in order.

Reasonable classification and manifest arbitrariness are the two grounds which the Courts use to determine the constitutional validity of a measure when faced with an Article 14 challenge. Under the former test, a law will be held violative of Article 14 if it (a) classifies people without an intelligible differentia, and (b) the object sought to be achieved through the law has no rational nexus with the classification made. The manifest arbitrariness test, on the other hand, is well, arbitrary – in the sense that the Supreme Court itself has been unable to determine what the test really requires them to do. Indirect discrimination happens when a policy or a measure which appears neutral on the face of it puts members of a protected group at a disproportionate advantage as compared with the members of a cognate group. Disparate impacts analysis is the name given to the test to determine whether indirect discrimination has occurred.

For the purposes of this post, I will restrict myself to a specific question: does the test of manifest arbitrariness support a finding of indirect discrimination?

There are two reasons why it should not:

I. As Prof. Khaitan points out, indirect discrimination is structurally comparative, insofar as it disadvantages certain groups of people in relation to a cognate group. The arbitrariness test, on the other hand is a “test of unreasonableness of measures which do not entail comparison.” Take Nariman, J.’s framing of “manifest arbitrariness”, as laid down in Shayara Bano:

Manifest arbitrariness, therefore, must be something done capriciously, irrationally and/or without determining principle. Also, when something is done which is excessive and disproportionate, such legislation would be manifestly arbitrary.

None of the underlined words in the definition above seem to suggest that a comparative analysis could be possible under the test, which explains why manifest arbitrariness is also termed ‘non-comparative unreasonableness’. Seervai shares this suspicion, when he notes that the test “hangs in the air, because it propounds a theory of equality without reference to the language of Article 14”. Also note that when Navtej struck down Section 377 as being manifestly arbitrary, no equality analysis is done. Dhruva recognizes this objection, and argues that:

The words ‘excessive and disproportionate’ appear to refer to the impact of a measure and to that extent cover the disproportionate, adverse effect which constitutes disparate impact. The absence of an ‘adequate determinative principle’ is the absence of a justification necessary to sustain a measure of indirect discrimination. Therefore, it is possible for judges in Navtej to apply this doctrine to arrive at a finding of disparate impact.

What it means is this: in order to support a finding of indirect discrimination, the Courts will ask whether there is a reasonable justification, or an ‘adequate determinative principle’ for upholding the differentia, i.e. the disadvantaged and the cognate group. In Navtej of course, the Court does not ask what the differentia is while determining the arbitrariness – it does so when it is testing Section 377 under the classification test itself.

In my opinion, Dhruva’s interpretation of manifest arbitrariness resembles the rational nexus prong of the traditional reasonable classification doctrine, much less an entirely separate ground of review. Recall that under the rational nexus prong, the Courts will ask whether there exists a reasonable connection between the objectives sought by the impugned measure and the differentia. In the absence of a rational nexus, or an ‘adequate determinative principle’, the Court will strike down the law as being violative of Article 14.

II. Another objection I take to the manifest arbitrariness test is that it prescribes no thresholds for the test to be activated. This could possibly be attributed to Bhagwati, J.’s framing of equality as being antithetical to arbitrariness in Royappa:

Where an act is arbitrary it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Article 14…

My point is this: What capricious/ irrational/ without determining principle/ excessive/ disproportionate could possibly mean for the purposes of Article 14 has not been clarified by the Courts as yet. Why? By Royappa’s logic, the Court is not required to do so – the inequality is implicit in the arbitrariness of the measure itself. But even for the sake of playing the devil’s advocate, how do we determine what the implicit inequality is? There is no answer to this, and the Courts do not know either. This possibly explains why the Courts do not do much in terms of equality analysis while applying the manifest arbitrariness test. This enables individual judges to impose their own standards of morality to legislative review, which often results in the legislature’s wisdom being replaced by that of the judge, thus allowing the Court to enter into policy making under the garb of rights protection.

While this could occasionally have positive effects, such as Navtej where the Court applied constitutional morality to strike down a colonial law, it could easily go the other way as well. This objection is best exemplified by the Court’s judgement in the Bar Dancers case, where the Court chose to apply, and uphold the same colonial morality it had struck down in Navtej. (A detailed analysis by Anup Surendranath of all that was wrong with Bar Dancers is available here). This arbitrariness in application of the arbitrariness test does not bode well for equality jurisprudence, and can leave it at the mercy of the caprices of the judges who happen to be hearing the case.

Why does this matter?

Cases of indirect discrimination, and civil rights in general often involve inquiries into deeper questions on the moral goodness of a law, and what it means to be equal. On the other hand, the arbitrariness test divorces the content of equality from the inquiry. By characterizing discrimination as the mere result of an arbitrary state action, the Court loses an opportunity to afford judicial recognition to the various forms of structural inequality as they currently exist, (and as I will argue in the next section) update its jurisprudence accordingly, and possibly redeem itself. Navtej is transformative constitutionalism at its best– using constitutional morality to advance a notion of equality that could contribute in altering popular morality.

Having demonstrated the dangers of the arbitrariness test, I will now show that the reasonable classification test was used to make a disparate impact analysis in Navtej.

Typically, under the disparate impact test, when it is shown that a measure has led to disproportionate harm being caused to a group as against the cognate group, the Courts will hold that the right to equality has been prima facie infringed. It will then shift the burden to the defendant, and ask whether the measure nevertheless achieves its intended goals. In some jurisdictions, even if the defendant shows that there exists a legitimate justification for the practice, the plaintiff will prevail if it is demonstrated that there exists a better, alternate measure which can achieve the same goal without the disproportionate harm. On similar lines, Prof. Khaitan argues that the scope of inquiry under the nexus prong of the classification test could be expanded by asking the following questions:

Is the measure necessary to achieve the objective? Can the same objective be achieved using means that do not restrict fundamental rights?

I would suggest that Misra, C.J.’s reasons for finding Section 377 unconstitutional under the classification test employed the same analysis as well:

A perusal of Section 377 IPC reveals that it classifies and penalizes persons who indulge in carnal intercourse with the object to protect women and children from being subjected to carnal intercourse. That being so, now it is to be ascertained whether this classification has a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved. The answer is in the negative as the non-consensual acts which have been criminalized by virtue of Section 377 IPC have already been designated as penal offences under Section 375 IPC and under the POCSO Act.

Per contra, the presence of this Section in its present form has resulted in a distasteful and objectionable collateral effect whereby even consensual acts, which are neither harmful to children nor women and are performed by a certain class of people (LGBTs) owning to some inherent characteristics defined by their identity and individuality, have been woefully targeted. [paragraph 237]

Misra, C.J.’s reasoning here is quite simple: not only is the objective of protecting women and children from carnal intercourse already achieved by other laws (thereby making Section 377 unnecessary for that purpose), the measure also has the effect of excluding the LGBT peoples, thereby violating their fundamental rights. Therefore, it is my opinion that Misra C.J. read in a crude disparate impact analysis into the classification test, albeit without using the same words. Elsewhere on this blog, Gautam has analyzed how Chandrachud J.’s critique of the classification test recognized indirect discrimination for the first time in Indian equality jurisprudence. Navtej has been celebrated for several reasons – expanding our understanding of equality and its jurisprudence should be one of them.

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